Category Archives: The Ten Percent

The Ten Percent: ‘American Gods’

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

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Greetings and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks (well, roughly), Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was, sadly, right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud – but there has always been that slim slice of sublime. The Ten Percent isn’t limited by genre – I think our previous columns have proven that point – and that’s because these rare gems are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

I have, on occasion, discussed an entry that makes the cut on The Ten Percent in more than one category, such as a book and the movie made from the book. It’s hard enough to create ONE fantastic thing; to create a Ten-Percent-worthy work in more than a single medium is truly catching lightning in a bottle.

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The Ten Percent: Come and See (1985)

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

Elim Klimov’s Come and See (1985) takes its place in an unusual corner of the Ten Percent. A place for works of art that are so powerful, so honest, and so terrible that they absolutely must be seen, but which are also so psychologically and emotionally intense that they are revisited only rarely. The late Roger Ebert wrote that Come and See “is one of the most devastating films ever about anything, and in it, the survivors must envy the dead,” while Mark Cousins called Come and See “the greatest war film ever made.” Both are correct.

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The Ten Percent: The Great Escape (1963)

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Original poster for The Great Escape, 1963.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Welcome back to “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. So many films premiere each year, but only a very few are remembered and revered years later. That’s not a matter of genre – the Ten Percent is a big tent, with plenty of room for comedy, drama, horror, animation, musical, science fiction and many more. But admission into the tent is not easy to come by. Films in this category last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

Before I talk about why 1963’s The Great Escape belongs in the Ten Percent, it’s worth taking the time to point out the film’s flaws. First, neither bicycles nor motorcycles were used in the 1943 escape from Stalag Luft III. Second, the “Great Escape” of 76 Allied POWs took place in unseasonably cold weather during one of the worst winters seen in Eastern Poland in 30 years. Third, there were no Americans among the escapees who were mostly British and Canadian. Finally, there was never any regulation which stated that Allied prisoners were duty-bound to attempt to escape. In fact, many, perhaps most, American and British POWs were generally leery of escape attempts.

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The Ten Percent – Beasts, Beauty, and Wonder

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Happy 2017 and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column – well, last year it was more of a semi-regular column, but we’re resolved to change that, now that one gigantic project is wrapping up. Ahem. Let’s start again . . .

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The Ten Percent: MST3K

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome back for another installment of “The Ten Percent”, the bi-weekly column here at Biff Bam Pop! where K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law (quoted above) and examine the cultural productions that fall in that elusive 10% of things that are not crud. The Ten Percent is the place where all of the films, TV shows, comics, novels, visual arts, etc. that stand the test of time live. These are the things that are not forgotten, and continue to inspire us generation after generation and decade after decade.

Yet the 90% is comprised of a hell of a lot of (generally forgettable) stuff, and in the modern era, more and more of it has been and is being preserved for some theoretical posterity. In a way, the crud becomes grist for the larger cultural mill, and that means that – in theory at least – it should be possible to take some of the 90% and transform it into a part of the Ten Percent. This is exactly what Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) did from 1988 – 1999, and threatens to do once again when it returns in 2017 with a new season and a cast featuring geek royalty Patton Oswalt and Felicia Day.
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The Ten Percent: Wonder Woman, 1941 – 2016

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“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Remember, for each film or television show that gets people talking years or even decades after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that peeked out just once and then (thankfully) disappeared. Those are the 90%, but the remaining Ten Percent are the works that stand the test of time.

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31 Days of Horror 2016: Eek! The Sounds of Horror

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

horror-soundsHello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where Ensley F. Guffey and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud.

When it comes to the horror genre, well – there’s a lot of crud. That stands to reason, since horror films can be extra-super-cheap to make (I’ve seen a few that have convinced me that the largest line item on the budget was for Karo syrup and red food coloring), which means they don’t have to do particularly well at the box office to make enough to justify a horde of sequels. Also – to be fair – some of the awful examples from the 1950s and ’60s have a certain charm in their naïveté that elevates them beyond their paltry production values. (Mr. Sardonicus, I’m looking at you. May God bless William Castle.)

One element that is worth discussing in horror movies – the really good ones, anyway – is the use of sound to build the tension and, in some cases, scare the ever-loving bejeezus out of us.

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The Ten Percent – Pay Attention to the Open Sky

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

 

David Lavery bends technology to his indomitable will!

David Lavery bends technology to his indomitable will!

As you know, this column is devoted to the tiny slice of what isn’t crud. Here, Ensley F. Guffey and I discuss examples of films, comics, television, and so on that don’t deserve to be thrown on the ash heap of history, for while Sturgeon was right in thinking that most things are forgettable and disposable, some things transcend their brief time on the air, in print, and – every now and then – on earth.

If you have ever been so hooked on a television show that you wanted to know more, if you ever caught yourself surfing fan websites to find out why a certain piece of music was used over the closing credits, if you ever thought that television could be more than casual entertainment, and if you have ever thought that in this age of Mad Men, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, and The Sopranos, (among others), that TV should no longer be called the “boob tube,” take a moment to thank David Lavery, who passed away suddenly on August 30.

David insisted that television – at its best – was worthy of serious study. While television studies is still an emerging field, well, so was film studies forty years ago. It took dedicated, passionate scholars toiling away without much notice and doggedly building a body of superb work to remove the stigma of “only entertainment” from film. David was one of a handful of people putting that same rigor and encyclopedic knowledge into television. He was invited around the world to present his ideas and insights at conferences. While his contributions to the field of television studies are incalculable, I think the human legacy he leaves behind is more important.

David originally trained as an English scholar before he turned his attention to the critical study of popular culture. Over the course of his thirty-year-plus career, he chaired an astonishing number of dissertations and theses. He wrote and edited a bookshelf of books, on topics ranging from the creative process to British philosopher Owen Barfield to Lost. And, along with his wife Joyce, he raised two incredible human beings, who are currently raising the next generation of incredible human beings. His wit was legendary and his praise could make you stop questioning your own abilities, at least for a little while. He loved language, especially the way words could mix meanings and work on multiple levels – and he wasn’t above the groan-worthy pun, either. (See the title of his blog for an example.)

At his memorial, student after student recalled his generosity – he was known for jumping on ideas and then saying, “You ought to write about that!” He felt the security of tenure placed upon him an obligation to champion his students. Far from being the stereotypical grumpy professor who closely guarded his materials out of Gollum-like fear that someone else might steal an idea, David was known for cheerfully sharing quotes (he kept notebooks full of epigrams, just in case the right occasion came along), research suggestions, and entire books. He was about as far from being a stuffed shirt as it is possible to be.

I know all of this because I knew David. He showed faith in me when I was pretty certain that I was an impostor. See, I don’t have a Ph.D. (in horribleness or anything else). I picked up my knowledge of film and television (mostly) on the street, rather than in formal classrooms. David, along with a number of other, equally generous scholars, was my textbook. I may have been a diamond in the rough when I first met David in 2006, but he never made me feel like an untutored lout. His criticism was always wrapped around the desire to make me a better writer and I like to think his time on me was well placed.

At his memorial – which is a story in itself, involving as it did an atheist, a rabbi, and Sufi poetry – I was in too much shock to cry. How was it possible that I was in a David-less world? That I’d never again lean into one of his one-armed side hugs? That he’d never again slyly tell an ever-so-slightly dirty joke and delight in his audience’s reaction? Gorram it, this just wasn’t right! He was supposed to be teaching a course on Game of Thrones this semester.

His family did a very David thing at the reception – they took several cartons of books from his office and encouraged all of us to take a few as mementoes. I may have been a little greedy, but I think David would have appreciated me putting aside my usual Southern reserve because, hey, free books! And they do make me feel that he’s maybe a little closer. The service included a handout of the lyrics to Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer,” which now has different, deeper meaning for me than before (The title of this post is a lyric from that song, by the way.)

Also, David’s first book was called Late for the Sky, which is also the title of Jackson Browne’s third album (“For a Dancer” is also on the same album.) I don’t believe in coincidences at that level.

A good man is gone, which is always an occasion worthy of stopping the world for at least a brief moment. So go watch some good TV. And – if you’re so inclined – raise a glass to a man gone too soon, who would have enjoyed watching it with you.

He is most definitely part of the Ten Percent.

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017)You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

 

The Ten Percent: M (1931)

1931 German poster for Fritz Lang's M.

1931 German poster for Fritz Lang’s M.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent, a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.

Fritz Lang’s M (1931) fulfills both of these criteria, and then some. The scene is late 1920s Berlin, a city supposedly gripped by fear in the wake of a series of brutal child murders (and, it is intimated, horrific sexual assault). The police are working overtime, and using the latest techniques in criminal investigation, including fingerprints, handwriting analysis, and an early form of psychological profiling – all to no avail. They are also “rounding up the usual suspects,” conducting raid after raid on known criminal hangouts and operations. Yet the killer remains uncaught. More than the first police procedural (which it is), or the first serial killer film (which it also is), M is a portrait and condemnation of German society in the late Weimar Republic.

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The Ten Percent: “Don’t Call Me Shirley”

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello and welcome to another installment of “The Ten Percent,” a regular column here on Biff Bam Pop! where every other week Ensley F. Guffey and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the ten percent of everything which is not crud. Sometimes it can be hard to remember that for each film or television show that gets people talking years after its premiere, there are hundreds of others that barely cleared the horizon before being (thankfully) shot down. The works that soar above the rest – well, those are the works that stand the test of time. And don’t be fooled into thinking that genre matters to the Ten Percent – slapstick comedy is in here, along with science fiction, animation, bloody horror, toe-tapping musicals, and more. The Ten Percent last for two reasons: (1) they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception and (2) they somehow manage to capture something fleeting and rare and preserve it for the lucky viewing public.

It’s an often-cited adage that the Academy doesn’t give Oscars to comedies. It’s also a often-cited adage that comedy is difficult – as Peter O’Toole’s Alan Swan says in My Favorite Year, “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.” (Yes, other people are credited with saying it first, but when you try to track that down, the footprints vanish into the mist quite completely. So O’Toole it is.) At any rate, good, gut-busting comedy is hard to come by and comedy also changes with the times; far more so than straight dramatic stories. (This is one reason why Shakespeare’s tragedies tend to be a bit easier for modern audiences to understand than his comedies. Times change, and with that, tastes change as well.) We’ve written about comedy before here at The Ten Percent, but we haven’t delved into one of the great slapstick parodies of the last half-century. This column intends to rectify that.

Parodies often work best when more than one particular item is being spoofed. If all the jokes rely on your audience having seen the One Thing that serves as your source material – well, that can be risky indeed. So Blazing Saddles spoofs the entire genre of Western cowboy movies instead of just sending up High Noon. In a similar fashion, back in 1980, Jim Abrahams, along with brothers David and Jerry Zucker, decided that the disaster film genre could use a comedic treatment. Borrowing from the 1957 film Zero Hour! as well as Airport 1975, they gave us the fast-paced hilarity of Airplane! and lo, the world was a better place.

Much of the humor of Airplane! derives from watching heretofore serious actors who have been given a very loose rein to “go big or go home.” Robert Stack, who plays Capt. Rex Kramer, had previously played the captain who loses his nerve in 1954’s The High & the Mighty, one of the first airline disaster films, and here has a wonderful, scenery-chewing time as the straight man. Lloyd Bridges, who plays Steve “Looks like I picked the wrong week to give up sniffing glue” McCroskey, is directly parodying his role as the airport manager in San Francisco International Airport, a television show from 1970 – 1971. And Peter Graves (Capt. Clarence “Joey, have you ever been in a Turkish prison?” Oveur) had played in the made-for-TV disaster film SST: Death Flight (seriously, what a title!).

Moreover, most viewers don’t know that Leslie Nielsen, who is so incredibly funny in this film (as well as in the Naked Gun series, which was also written and produced by the Airplane! team) began his career as a square-jawed leading man – go watch the science fiction classic Forbidden Planet if you need a refresher.* And yes, it’s that straight-ahead hero type who terrorized the Airplane! set with – yes – a whoopee cushion.

Overall, the plot is standard disaster-film issue and is basically lifted right from Zero Hour! But nothing like the rapid-fire punning, visual gags, and off-color jokes had been seen in a disaster film before – and they worked. The film made a handsome return on its cost and has been named one of the best filmed comedies of all time on a number of polls and is ranked as #10 on the American Film Institute’s list of Best Comedies. In fact, Airplane! is on the National Film Registry, which is run by the Library of Congress, thereby ensuring that generations yet unborn will delight in seeing Johnny (the late, and greatly missed, Stephen Stucker) declare, “There’s a sale at Penney’s!” (And they will also get to benefit from his extensive origami skills.)

Look, life is hard these days. Airplane! gives us an hour-and-a-half of sheer, rib-splitting laughter. Do yourself a favor and watch it again, for any movie that allows the Beaver’s mom (Barbara Billingsley) to send up that pearls-and-apron paragon of domestic perfection certainly deserves its spot on The Ten Percent.

*Plus, bonus points if you know that Gunderson, the tower tech who checks the “radar range,” was played by Jonathan Banks, who would go on to memorably play Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad. (Look at the 15-second mark on this clip.)

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2017)You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.

 

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